My heart goes out to every officer and their families killed in the line of duty. That is a pain I wish on no one. But like Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, I am also sick and tired of being sick and tired -- of the denial of institutional racism, even in the midst of overwhelming evidence.
Hamer's words immediately came to mind when the U.S. Dept. of Justice released its highly publicized report on discriminatory practices in the Ferguson Police Dept. I'm so over people being surprised by these actions and would rather focus on solutions that begin with validating the reality of the dangerousness and difficulty of police work in exchange for an acknowledgement of the violence of racial profiling against black people. It is only through the validation of one another's experiences that we can mutually achieve non-lethal, quality-of-life enhancing solutions.
Let's start with the denial (or willful ignorance) about the existence of institutional racism. Even the FBI Director James Comey acknowledged some "hard truths" about law enforcement and race involving the widespread nature of unconscious bias. In spite of supporting data, there is still resistance to the idea of institutional racism in police departments.
For example, the president of the Austin (Texas) Police Association denies the existence of institutional discrimination, reducing it to a few isolated cases of biased individuals who are eventually weeded out of law enforcement. Like many white conservatives, TV pundit Bill O'Reilly has loudly proclaimed there is no systemic racism in policing. But looking at the Ferguson data, I wonder how it can be seen as anything other than systemic institutional racism. Can it be that people simply don't understand what institutional racism is?
These facts from Ferguson illustrates:
- While African-Americans comprise 67 percent of Ferguson's population, they account for 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests
- African-Americans are more than twice as likely as white drivers to be searched during vehicle stops but are 26 percent less likely than white drivers to be in possession of contraband
- Between 2012 and 2014, Ferguson police issued four or more citations to African-Americans on 73 occasions but only twice to non-African-Americans
- Every dog biting incident involved African-Americans where race was identified
- African -Americans are 68 percent less likely to have their cases dismissed by court and 50 percent more likely to have their cases lead to an arrest warrant.
- This is what institutional racism is: systemic institutional policies and practices that place a racial or ethnic minority group at a disadvantage to a racial majority group. As surprising as it may sound, I can understand why some dismiss the idea. The notion certainly threatens American values of justice and equality. And if institutional racism can be documented and proven to contribute to racially differential life outcomes, the narrative of justice and equality becomes nothing more than hollow words. America would be morally responsible for addressing and ending institutional racism.
My real frustration is I don't believe any amount of data will convince some white people of the existence and pervasiveness of institutional racism. The racial divide on perceptions of racial discrimination remains wide: According to the Pew Research Center, 88 percent of blacks think there is some or a lot of discrimination against blacks compared with only 57 percent of whites. Try telling Dolores Sharp, an African-American cop in New York who was racially harassed and recently acquitted of charges stemming from an arrest, that institutional racism doesn't exist in police departments.
It doesn't help that some African-Americans who join the chorus of criticisms that African-Americans exaggerate claims of racism and bring racial profiling upon themselves. Former NBA basketball player and wannabe cultural critic Charles Barkley said there is a reason black people get racially profiled, suggesting we bring it on ourselves. John McWhorter, an African-American linguist and public intellectual, has argued that police officers stop more black males in areas where certain kinds of crime are rampant because it is the only logical way to fight crime, and that racial profiling of blacks is motivated by pragmatism rather than racism.
Glenn Loury, an African-American economist and scholar, has argued that racial stereotypes often involve rational statistical inferences in the presence of limited information. Loury, however, was not justifying institutional racism but rather explaining how the behavior of "agents" (e.g., police officers) who hold negative racial stereotypes may influence the behavior of the subjects (e.g., blacks) in a way that confirms the racial stereotype. In the context of police behavior toward blacks, disrespectful behavior of police officers (e.g., when Officer Darren Wilson told Michael Brown and his friend to "get the **** on the sidewalk" as testified by Dorian Johnson) may lead to disrespectful and disobedient behavior by young black males, who may be sick and tired of being disrespected and racially profiled.
To be sure, the interactions between police and black males (and increasingly black females) is a complex dynamic involving stereotypes and mistrust among both parties. Police have an incredibly difficult and dangerous job, risking their lives every day. It is not uncommon to get reports of police being ambushed, shot, and sometimes killed.
Recently a Philadelphia police officer, Robert Wilson III, was shot to death by two brothers. While race is often the emotionally charged lens through which we view and analyze police shootings, in this instance the police officer was African-American and the suspects were also both African-American. Another African-American police officer, Terence Avery Green, a 22-yer veteran of the Fulton County Police Department, was recently ambushed and killed in an Atlanta suburb. I imagine police are always aware of this reality and, understandably, frustrated and angry that this constant danger is not acknowledged enough in the midst of constant police criticism.
I sometimes wonder if the denial of institutional racism is in some way a byproduct of the failure to fully recognize and appreciate how dangerous the job of police officers is: Do police officers deny institutional racism because of the fear that acknowledging its existence might overshadow the difficult and dangerous nature of their jobs? This need not be the case. One can acknowledge police have dangerous jobs and their lives are in constant danger while also acknowledging individual and institutional racism exists in individual attitudes, behaviors, practices and procedures in police departments.
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